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China’s quid pro panda

The web’s buzzing this week about the Edinbugh Zoo welcoming a pair of giant breeding pandas from China’s Sichuan province. "Since the 1950s," Reuters explains, "China has given away pandas as gestures of goodwill in what has come to be known as ‘panda diplomacy.’" Or, as the Independent exuberantly put it, "Pandaplomacy! Eats shoots and ...

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The web’s buzzing this week about the Edinbugh Zoo welcoming a pair of giant breeding pandas from China’s Sichuan province.

"Since the 1950s," Reuters explains, "China has given away pandas as gestures of goodwill in what has come to be known as ‘panda diplomacy.’" Or, as the Independent exuberantly put it, "Pandaplomacy! Eats shoots and and helps ease global tension."

Ah, if only it were that simple. To be sure, the arrival in Scotland of Tian Tian and Yang Guang (or Sweetie and Sunshine, for Anglophones) has been accompanied by a flurry of diplomatic activity. During a happily timed visit to China this week, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond thanked Chinese officials for the pandas and announced a raft of bilateral agreements, including plans to digitally map China’s ancient Eastern Qing Tombs and possibly establish direct flights between the two countries.

But underlying these friendly overtures is the stark truth that China’s panda diplomacy just isn’t what it used to be. According to the Guardian, the origins of the practice actually stretch  all the way back to the Tang dynasty in the seventh century, when the Empress Wu Zetian dispatched two pandas to the Japanese court. The Chinese government revived panda diplomacy in the 1950s, sending 23 pandas as "state gifts" and "friendly ambassadors" to nine countries through 1982, according to the China Internet Information Center.

In perhaps the most famous example, Mao Zedong presented Richard Nixon with two pandas after their groundbreaking summit in 1972 (Nixon, in turn, gave Mao a pair of America’s greatest zoological treasure: musk oxen). In Nixon and Mao, Margaet MacMillan describes the moment at which China’s premier offered the pandas to Pat Nixon:

Chou En-lai, who was smoking Chinese cigarretes, turned to Mrs. Nixon and gestured to the picture of two pandas on the package. "We will give you two," he said. According to Chinese sources, Mrs. Nixon screamed with joy…. Giving the right presents, not too lavish and not too simple, has been an art, one that the Chinese had traditionally excelled at.

These days, however, there’s simply no such thing as a free panda (unless you’re Hong Kong or Taiwan, which rejected a panda present in 2005 as an infringement on its independence). In the 1990s, as China flexed its economic muscle, Chinese conservation and zoological groups shifted gears and decided to loan the rare animals in pairs to other countries for 10 years of "cooperative research" with Chinese scientists and a hefty fee, with the pandas and their offspring remaining the "property of China during the loan period," according to the China Internet Information Center.

In fact, the arrival of Sweetie and Sunshine in Scotland is the product of five years of byzantine negotiations with Chinese authorities following the Edinburgh Zoo’s decision to bid for pandas as a way to stem financial losses — not some grand goodwill gesture from the Chinese government. And Scotland, banking on increased tourism to recoup its expenses, will pay China a cool $1 million a year for the honor of hosting its pandas, with most of the money going toward conservation and genetics research to help China preserve its panda population.

This new arrangement can lead to some awkward situations. According to a Washington Times report, the State Department suggested in 2009 that President Obama personally lobby Chinese President Hu Jintao to have Tai Shan, a cub born to leased pandas at Washington’s National Zoo, stay in the capital for a bit longer. "We think there might be a good chance that President Hu would agree, purely as a diplomatic goodwill gesture," State explained. While Tai Shan’s parents were permitted to stay in Washington under a five-year extension of the lease, the effort to keep Tai Shan in town ultimately failed. Diplomatic goodwill gesture? Please. A deal’s a deal.

 Twitter: @UriLF
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